A guide to UK education system for International families

Education in the UK is compulsory for children between the ages of 5 and 16, which is changing to 17 in 2013.


The school education in the UK is divided into:

  • nursery
  • primary school
  • secondary school
  • 6th form or further education college

There are different kinds of schools: comprehensive, grammar, private, fee-paying (known as independent) which may also be residential (called boarding). Comprehensive and grammar schools are state funded whereas private or independent schools are mostly funded by tuition charges and charitable donations. Most of the boarding schools are private but there are a few state funded boarding schools.

There are also a number of faith schools, same sex schools and specialist schools. Alternatively there is always an option of homeschooling your children and there is no necessary paperwork required to do so.

The state funded schools - comprehensive and grammar

A vast number of schools are maintained and funded by the central government or by their local authorities. If you are coming to the UK with your children, they may be able to study at a UK state school depending on their nationality and immigration status.

There are also 38 state funded boarding schools, but these only accept UK and other European Union nationals and those who have the right of residence in the UK. Parents have to pay for the boarding (living at the school) for their child, but the education in a state-maintained boarding school is free.

The majority of children in the UK go to comprehensive schools that are available to everyone and do not select students according to their academic achievements. Comprehensive schools were originally conceived as neighbourhood schools and most of them are secondary schools for children between the ages of 11 to 18. Grammar schools are also mostly secondary schools but they practice a selective approach to admit pupils.

The independent/fee-paying schools - private and public

Independent schools are not supported by the state and parents usually pay the fees for their children's education and living costs (the latter in the case of a boarding school). The UK has a long-established and respected independent boarding schools system tradition which offers a residential education for pupils aged 7 to 18 and many offer pre-preparatory day schooling for younger children. More than 20,000 international students from around the world attend independent schools in the UK each year. There are private and public independent schools, and academies with the first two being almost the same with some differences at individual school level.

National Curriculum/GCSEs/A Levels

Until the age of 16, pupils study subjects set out by the National Curriculum with subjects, such as English, Mathematics and Science, being compulsory. Education up to this level aims to be as broad as possible, and children usually study 8 to 12 subjects at secondary school. Pupils take official examinations at the end of secondary school (GCSEs in England, Northern Ireland and Wales; Standard Grades in Scotland) in their chosen subjects.

This is the end of compulsory education and there are the following choices from here: going to work or entering further education courses such as A-levels, BTEC Nationals or the International Baccalaureate. Further education courses can be studied in school sixth forms, sixth-form colleges and colleges of further education. In further education most students specialise in a general direction such as science, arts or humanities. It is also possible to take a training course for a specific career or industry sector like health, engineering or tourism. A-levels or equivalent qualifications prepare you for work and for entry to higher education.

Higher education

After achieving A-levels or an International Baccalaureate Diploma, you may want to progress to higher education. There are a few choices in academic courses such as Diplomas of Higher Education (DipHE), Bachelor's, Master's degrees and PhDs. A course in higher education can last from one to four years, and once you complete an undergraduate degree you can seek a graduate career or continue onto postgraduate courses.


  • On home schooling: http://www.educationotherwise.net/
  • On Higher Education, UK Council for International Student Affairs: http://www.ukcisa.org.uk/
  • Application process for Higher Education: http://www.ucas.com/
  • Information for International Students: http://www.educationuk.org/UK/
  • Information on Boarding Schools: http://www.sbsa.org.uk/
  • Department of Education http://www.education.gov.uk/
  • Information on different types of schools http://www.education.gov.uk/schools/leadership/typesofschools